The Historicity of the Early Irish Annals: Heritage and Content

The Historicity of the Early Irish Annals: Heritage and Content

By Patrick C. Griffin

Graduate Paper, Trinity College Dublin, 2001

To anyone attempting to explore the alluring world of medieval Ireland, it would seem that there is a set of guidebooks that allow one to look up any given year in Irish history and know the important events that had occurred. As any scholar who has researched early medieval Irish history can verify, however, there are myriad issues that must give one pause regarding the provenance of the annals and the information contained therein. This must influence the way in which these annals are read if they are to be used as a serious source for Irish history. The topic discussed herein is a very broad topic, and certainly one that requires more than a short essay to cover with any completeness; therefore, a brief overview of the issues relating to the annals and their historical content must be undertaken.

To begin, there are certain major annals that will not be discussed in this paper. The Annals of the Four Masters is a compilation of other annals that were available in the seventeenth century and therefore was written far too late to be considered a “medieval” annal. Also, the Annals of Loch Cé, beginning as they do in 1014 with a lengthy entry on the Battle of Clontarf, are a later medieval Irish annal. Though some have suggested that Loch Cé is Tigernachi Continuator (a continuation of the early Annals of Tigernach), this is probably not the case, as they begin seventy-four years too early to be a continuation of Tigernach, which ends in 1088. The Annals of Connacht, the Miscellaneous Annals, and Mac Carthaigh’s Book all begin on or after the year 1114. Because of the dates they treat, those annals are too late to be considered early Irish annals, and are therefore not pertinent to the discussion.

In this essay, therefore, the annals to be treated are the Annals of Ulster, the Annals of Inisfallen, the Annals of Tigernach, and the Annals of Clonmacnoise. Each of them begins in what was sometimes referred to as “the earliest times,” which generally means the Biblical Creation of the world.  They generally proceed almost exclusively through Biblical events to the classical world of Greece and Rome, though sometimes they refer to important events from Irish mythological history: “[c. 17 BC] Natiuitas Conculainn maic Soaltaim. (Birth of Cuchullain son of Soaltam).”  Around the beginning of the sixth century, they become much more involved with events of Irish interest.

Click here to read this article from Patrick C. Griffin’s website

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